Tony Parsons interview

Book and Magazine Collector, October 2004

Tony Parsons first achieved fame as a combative young music journalist, covering the rise of punk during the 1970s. In recent years he has reinvented himself not only as a high-profile newspaper columnist but also as one of Britain’s most popular novelists. I met him on a warm but wet evening in mid-July. Contrary to his prickly public image, he turned out to be jovial and mild-mannered, his cheerful demeanour no doubt owing something to the discovery that his latest novel, The Family Way, had entered the bestseller chart at Number One. I began by asking him whether he’s a keen collector of books.

I’ve just started to collect first editions of the ones I love. I’m trying to get hold of two firsts of The World of Suzie Wong by Richard Mason, one for my best friend and one for me. If anyone has a copy for sale, please write to me c/o Fiona McIntosh at HarperCollins. 

I also collect different editions of books that I love. I’ve bought quite a few editions of Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, The Catcher in the Rye, Money, and all the James Bond books. What’s more, over the past couple of months, I’ve acquired about half-a-dozen paperback editions of Suzie Wong from e-bay. They feature some wonderfully pulpy covers — sailors in Hong Kong, you can just imagine. Fantastic stuff. There’s a strong sexual element to the covers of a lot of those books, perhaps because society was more repressed then.

Did books play a significant role in your childhood?

My mother had six brothers and they were all voracious readers, whose tastes tended towards popular fiction. From an early age, they were passing books on to me. I was reading Ian Fleming when I was about nine years old. Once you get the bug, you investigate other things for yourself.

Who was the first adult author that you read? 

J.D. Salinger was probably the first ‘literary’ novelist that I read, though his writing is so accessible that I don’t think those divisions are applicable. I was also really interested in Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

As a child, were you resistant to books that were recommended by adults? 

No, I always considered reading and books to be something akin to pop music or movies. You found your own level. You consumed what you wanted. I never considered it homework. 

There’s nothing more intimate than a book that you love; nothing that means as much to you, or speaks to you as deeply. I never felt that I was forced to read anything. I could usually see the merit in whatever I was given. Although Lord of the Flies and some of the books that I read at school were very different to the stuff my uncles were giving me, I could still enjoy them.

Your English teachers must’ve appreciated your enthusiasm. 

They did early on. From the age of about seven or eight, I wanted to be a writer. At that stage, the teachers were very supportive. As I got older, I moved to a grammar school, where there was a lot less encouragement. You were simply part of institutionalised education. That’s one of the reasons why I left school at sixteen. I also felt that a writer should be out in the world experiencing things which is, in some ways, extremely naïve. It’s a very Romantic vision of the writer’s life. I’m sure I would’ve learned a lot more if I’d stayed at school and gone to university. Instead, I found myself in a gin factory and on the London docks. You see a bit of life in those sort of dead-end jobs, but mostly you’re just working and you’re completely exhausted by them.

What did your parents think about your literary ambitions? 

Like any parents, they were afraid I was going to get hurt, that my dreams wouldn’t come true, so they weren’t that keen. They were a bit bewildered by it, too, because we didn’t know anybody in that world. But I was certain what I wanted to do. Life is very simple if you know what you want, because you’re going to follow that route to whatever destiny awaits you.

Who was the first writer that you met? 

My first job in journalism was on The N.M.E., so the ones I met initially were people like Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray, who were huge figures in the youth culture of the mid-1970s. I was suddenly taken from the gin factory and dropped into their world…

How did you make that transition? 

When I was a teenager, I wrote a novel called The Kids, which was published as a paperback. It was quite a poor novel. I sent a copy to The N.M.E.. I don’t think they ever read it. They probably just looked at the cover — like some critics. But they gave me a job, anyway. 

Part of that Romantic vision of being a writer led me to think that if I could get a novel published I’d be able to live off my writing. In fact, I only made £700 out of the novel, though it sold 25,000 copies.

When you wrote that first novel, were you, like so many other extremely young writers, trying to imitate anyone in particular? 

There was a guy called Richard Allen, who wrote Skinhead. I suppose it was an incongruous combination of him and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I seem to remember seeing a TV documentary in which Richard Allen was unmasked as some tweedy middle-aged man. 

Once when I was visiting the offices of the New English Library, which published my first novel, I saw him, but I didn’t speak to him. He looked really old to me, but he was probably about twenty-nine. No, he was quite advanced in years. In some ways, he did a remarkable thing, not unlike what J.K. Rowling has done: he got post-war children reading books. Mind you, his books aren’t as cute and cuddly and warm as the Harry Potter series. He had a smaller demographic than J.K. Rowling, who sells to everybody. His audience tended to be teenage boys.

Has anyone offered to reprint your debut novel? 

They have, but I refused, partly because it’s not very good, which reminds me of what happened when Jarvis Cocker got a hit record. The record companies wanted to re-release his old stuff. Now there’s a reason why it wasn’t very successful. And that’s because it wasn’t very good. 

People are always trying to put out old stuff of mine, such as collections of journalism, but I’m usually reluctant for the same reason. André Deutsch is bringing out just such a collection, and I’ve told them I don’t approve, but they’re going ahead anyway. I don’t like the idea of my readers being exploited. We all know what it’s like to buy an album by some artist we like, and it doesn’t live up to expectations.

Mention of you suppressing your first novel reminds me of Tobias Wolff, who did the same thing. 

Funny you should say that because Wolff’s one of my favourite writers. He was the big source of inspiration for me when I was writing Man and Boy. I find the way that his stories present all these different experiences and worlds fascinating. There’s a clarity about his writing. You’re never really in any doubt about what he’s trying to say. Of course you can take that sort of pared-down style too far. You can take it to that Hemingway level of self-parody. You know the sort of thing: ‘the sun was good; the fish were good, the woman was good…’ 

Who are your other literary idols? 

Philip Roth is one of my great heroes. Unlike Norman Mailer and John Updike and the rest of his generation, he’s no mere relic. His last five books have been the best things he’s ever done. 

I’m also a big fan of Keith Waterhouse, who has been something of a role model ever since I read him as a kid. He taught me that a writer can write plays, novels, journalism, films, anything. What’s more, he was the first writer with whom I had direct contact. I sent a letter to him, saying, ‘What do I do? I’m sixteen years old and I want to be a writer and I live in the suburbs and I know nobody in the literary world?’ And he wrote back to me, telling me I should try to get an agent. That’s the best advice anyone ever gave me. You really can’t do it without an agent. If you don’t have one, publishers will just chew you up and spit you out.

Did your parents live to see the success of Man and Boy

My mum died just before it was published. And my dad died twelve years before that. They saw me as a journalist. They saw me establish myself on TV, to a certain extent. But the recent books have taken it to a different level in this country and also worldwide. 

I feel that my parents are looking down at me. I don’t feel that they missed out on it. I do believe that their spirits are around in some form that I can’t quite understand.

While you were writing Man and Boy, were you thinking of the pleasure it might give your mum? 

I knew she was dying at the time, so that her spirit pervades Man and Boy, which is about the loss of a parent. Although it’s about a father dying, the death of my own father was really quite distant by then.

Did you find the move from non-fiction to fiction liberating? 

Very much so. With fiction, you’ve got the freedom to put in stuff that’s true. If something works, then you can use it. If you want to change something, you can do that, too. The trick that I learned with Man and Boy is that you have to make the things that really happened and those that are made up indistinguishable, even to yourself. They have to possess an equal resonance. It’s no good if the things that really happened seem more real than the stuff that’s invented. If anything, with me, the parts that seem most real are the parts that are completely fictional. People don’t quite get that. They assume that novels are straightforwardly autobiographical. That isn’t how it works. You take what you need. Everything has to work in the context of the book.

Were you surprised by the popularity of Man and Boy

You think, ‘what did I do right?’ And nobody can quite explain it. When you publish a book, you go out on the road and you talk to a few journalists and go on TV and radio, but the thing that makes a bestseller is word-of-mouth. That’s how books stay in the charts.

Were you happy with the TV adaptation of Man and Boy

The BBC made it much more of a conventional love story, whereas the real love story in the book is between the boy and his grandfather. Although there’s romantic and sexual love in there, that’s not the point of the book. It’s the love between those three generations of men. 

I enjoyed the process more than the end result. I enjoyed going down to the set and mixing with the actors and the director and watching them put it together. 

Still, once you’ve sold the rights to a book there isn’t a lot you can do. If you’re J.K. Rowling you can say, ‘I want control.’ But the average writer, like me, can’t do that. You have to get over the idea that someone can spoil your book, because they can’t. The book exists in its own right. Nobody can spoil it, or make it better.

The autobiographical elements of your fiction have provoked a lot of interest in your private life. D’you find that difficult to cope with? 

I’ve got quite a thick skin. Also, I tune stuff out. If The Daily Mail do a two-page spread on me, I won’t read it. That’s a coping mechanism. But when people start writing about your wife or your son or your ex-wife and they try to turn the whole thing into a Punch and Judy show, I do get resentful. Recently, a journalist spoke to my son, and The Daily Mail ran a story about him, which made me angry. He’s just a teenage kid and he’s not used to being in the public eye.

D’you find that your large readership creates pressure on you while you’re writing? 

I think I can deal with it now. Early on, especially after Man and Boy, there was a lot of pressure. You don’t want to disappoint your readers. That’s where the pressure comes from. 

I don’t want to do what Alex Garland did with The Beach, a very good mainstream novel, which he followed up with The Tesseract, a novel that read as if he’d just come out of creative writing school. At the same time, you have to go with the story that you’ve got, and I only ever have one story in my head at a time. I’m resigned to the next book — which will be about kids in the 1970s music scene — not being as commercially successful as the current one. But it’s the book that I want to write. You’ve got to follow your instincts and be true to yourself.

Are there many writers whose sales have, in your opinion, obscured their merits? 

I think Nick Hornby’s a great writer, but he hasn’t got the credit he deserves. He’s as good as Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie. Actually, I think he’s better than all of them. They’re trading on old reputations, on stuff that they did twenty years ago. 

I found Yellow Dog unreadable. I left it on a plane, which is a disappointing thing to do when a book is written by someone whose earlier novels I love. High Fidelity, on the other hand, is a wonderful novel. As with all the best novels, it starts with a strong character, with that guy who’s so dependent on music. Football and music are Nick’s great passions. The standard critical line is that his books express universal truths about young men, but that’s not really true. Nick isn’t a normal football fan. He’s much more passionate and obsessive about it than most men are. The same is true of his attitude to music.

Do you see yourself sharing the same tradition as Nick Hornby and other writers who produce writing that has a conversational flavour? 

I work quite hard on the books. I do about five drafts. I like the idea of them being easy to read. A lot of people say they read them in one or two sittings. I wouldn’t want my books to be the type that sell well, but never get read. 

I can’t imagine that many people are going to plough through the Bill Clinton autobiography. It’s just a great big, indigestible brick, yet it’s going to sell a million. This may sound strange, but I’d be interested to know what percentage of bestselling books are not read. I think there are quite a few.

Some of the Booker-Man Prize books must fall into that category. 

Yes, they become the books to give to people as presents. That said, some of those books are brilliant, like J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. But the majority of them don’t share its power or accessibility.

Do you think that the simplicity of your writing explains why you’ve had such a hostile reception from broadsheet critics? 

For a better press, you need to sell less. A lot of those reviewers are people I’ve worked alongside for years, people who think they have a book inside them. Maybe they have got a book inside them, but there’s a degree of chance in what the public warms to. Take the Lynn Truss book, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: who would’ve thought that it’d strike oil like that? If you were sitting down to write a bestseller, English punctuation isn’t the subject you’d choose. 

I haven’t really got any complaints about the critics, because I get my fair share of good reviews. You just need enough of those to provide quotes for the jacket of the paperback. 

I have novelist friends who’ve vowed never to write another novel because it’s such a brutal experience. It causes them too much physical pain. I can’t afford, on any level, to feel like that. Novel-writing is what I do. This is my day job. As a self-protective mechanism, I can’t let the critics get to me. You have to measure a couple of dozen people in London against two million readers. You have to find ways of dealing with it. My way of dealing with it is that I neither hide from it nor go looking for it. If a review is placed in front of me, I’ll read it. On the first Sunday of publication, I won’t go out and read all the reviews. You have to have to cultivate a Kipling-esque attitude by treating ‘those two imposters’ the same. If you care too much about your good reviews, if you’re re-reading them and thinking what a clever boy you are, the bad ones will hurt even more. It isn’t so hard for me because the books sell so well. It’s harder for people who are doing good work and trying to acquire a following, and then someone tears them to bits in half-an-hour for £200.

Have you found that any of the reviews of your novels have been particularly perceptive? 

I’ve just seen a good one in last weekend’s Sunday Telegraph. The reviewer said that I have this ‘secret sauce’. I like the idea of me having a secret recipe, akin to Kentucky Fried Chicken or Coca-Cola.

Reproduced by kind permission of Warners Group Publications.

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